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Smarter Balanced Making the Grade

Rachel Kachchaf explains how the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is helping to improve outcomes for English language learners

What improvements/provisions do the latest versions of Smarter Balanced have for ELLs?

The Smarter Balanced suite of accessibility resources provide the ability to customize the testing experience to individual student needs. There are several supports for both the ELA and the mathematics tests that provide linguistic support for all students, including English learners (ELs). 

The Smarter Balanced Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines committee annually reviews these resources and associated policies to ensure that the resources meet the current needs of membership. The committee consists of educators from across membership, including those individuals with expertise in English learners. This multidisciplinary committee ensures that the system of accessibility addresses the needs of students taking the assessment.

In addition to the annual review by members, we also reach out to our English learner advisory committee, consisting of national experts in English learner assessment, to inform on any new aspects of the assessments that may impact English learners.

Specific accessibility resources available in our assessments that may support ELs include (for more details, please reference the Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines document):

English Language Arts/Literacy: 

English glossaries 

Text to speech

Translated test directions in 18 languages plus several dialects


English glossaries 

Text to speech

Translated test directions, available in 18 languages plus several dialects

Translated text and audio glossaries for key terms, available in ten languages plus several dialects

The audio glossary is a recording of a native speaker speaking aloud the translation

Full stacked Spanish translation

The Smarter Balanced accessibility system is a tiered system that provides universal tools automatically activated for all students. These resources include English glossaries. Next, there are designated supports, which can be activated for any student so long as an informed educator or group of educators determines it is appropriate. Designated supports include translated test directions, translated glossaries, and stacked Spanish translation. 

Accommodations refer specifically to those resources that meet a need identified in an individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan, for those English learners with disabilities. Accommodations include resources such as braille. The individual student assessment accessibility profile (ISAAP) is a process and tool that facilitates educators selecting the appropriate resources for students based on their specific needs in the assessment.

What resources does Smarter Balanced offer to help teachers of ELLs, especially non-specialist ESL educators, prepare their students?

Smarter Balanced supports implementation of its assessments in many ways. As mentioned in question one, the individual student assessment accessibility profile (ISAAP) is a thoughtful and systematic approach to addressing student access needs for Smarter Balanced assessment. The ISAAP process includes seven steps. 

Our website provides a module to explain the process and a web-based tool to facilitate the selection of specific resources based on student needs. This process asks educators to:

Select key staff members and define roles

Provide training and information to staff, students, and parents

Identify students who will benefit from designated supports, accommodations, or both

Select the appropriate designated supports and accommodations for each student identified

Enter designated supports and accommodations into test engine

Perform a pre-administration check of the assigned access supports

Check for the delivery of assigned designated supports and accommodations at the time of test administration

The Smarter Balanced Ready web page describes the collective experience of many Smarter Balanced members implementing our assessments over the past several years. The site is organized into six big ideas that describe how schools have successfully implemented aspects of Smarter Balanced formative, interim, and summative assessments. 

Within each big idea, members share resources and strategies that have led to successful implementation. For example, the web page outlines how one large district successfully trained educators on the Smarter Balanced system of accessibility. The information provides specific individuals involved in the training and direct links to the state resources that outline the training.

The student support team at Smarter Balanced actively supports implementation of accessibility resources throughout the year in a variety of ways. Each year, the team works with educators from membership to provide key guidance on implementation. 

These resources, all located on our Accessibility and Accommodations page, include:

Smarter Balanced Resources and Practices Comparison Crosswalk, which connects the accessibility resources available in the Smarter Balanced assessments to similar classroom resources

Implementation Guide, which supports communicating the Smarter Balanced assessment system and accessibility resources to districts and schools

A year-to-year comparison of available accessibility resources:

This document compares the accessibility resources available on the interim and summative assessments from the previous school year to the current school year. The document highlights (a) updates to existing resources and policies and (b) newly added resources and policies.

Finally, the Smarter Balanced Digital Library helps educators implement the formative assessment process to improve teaching and learning. Many resources specifically focus on aspects relevant to English learners. For example, there are modules focused on the language and content that students use to write essays analyzing the development of theme and how students communicate learning during mathematical argumentation.

Can these resources be useful for non-ELL-classified students?

Yes. Smarter Balanced implements universal design principles throughout the development of its assessments. This means that as items are created, the needs of diverse students are considered so that a broad range of students can successfully interact with the items. 

Furthermore, as described above, the Smarter Balanced system of accessibility is customizable to meet individual student needs. The universal tools are automatically activated for any student. The designated supports can be provided to any student, as long as an informed educator or group of educators determines it is appropriate. Accommodations can be provided for any student, so long as the need is documented in an IEP or 504 plan. 

In light of recent criticism of too much testing, especially for ELLs, what is Smarter Balanced doing to relieve the “testing burden”?

It is important to note that our members (twelve states, one territory, and the Bureau of Indian Education) guide our policy and practices. Smarter Balanced executes the development of the assessment system based on our consensus-driven governance model. Members work together to provide direction on key issues, including testing time. 

Smarter Balanced is a high-quality assessment system that provides essential information regarding student performance on college- and career-ready content. It is a valuable tool for educators and policy makers to address the equity gap. It is our understanding that states are supporting districts in evaluating their menu of testing options to make sure time spent testing is effective.



Smarter Balanced Ready:

ISAAP module:

ISAAP instructions:

Smarter Balanced Resources and Practice Comparison Crosswalk:

Implementation Guide:

Year-to-year comparison of available accessibility resources:

Digital Library:

Rachel Kachchaf is senior director of student supports at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.  

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